Royal Maya Burial at El Zotz Ruins in Guatemala

Archaeologists discover Royal Maya Burial at El Zotz Ruins in Guatemala

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Archaeologists with the University of Southern California (USC) have discovered a burial chamber in the Five Temples section of El Zotz, an ancient Maya city lying in ruins in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Within the tomb, researchers uncovered the name of a king: Bakab K’inish (“The sun god who is first in the land”).

A press release from USC reports that the discovery was made by an archaeological team led by Tom Garrison, an assistant professor at USC who has been the principal investigator running excavations at the archaeological site of El Zotz, an isolated Maya ruin featuring pyramids, palaces, plazas, a ball court and a famous acropolis known as El Diablo.

The principal goal of the season had been to locate the tomb of a Maya queen, but instead they found the burial chamber of a Maya king.

The team reopens a tunnel into one of the main pyramids at the El Zotz site in Guatemala. 

The team reopens a tunnel into one of the main pyramids at the El Zotz site in Guatemala. (USC Photo/Robert Perkins)

El Zotz, in the Shadow of a Neighbor

El Zotz, once known as Pa’chan (“fortified sky”), is an impressive site that was occupied from the Preclassic to the Early Postclassic period of Maya civilization. Spreading out over roughly two square kilometers, the site includes a massive royal palace and temple on a hill overlooking smaller dwellings and temples in the valley below.

Located in the shadows of its more sizeable and powerful neighbour – the major center of Tikal – El Zotz would have struggled to maintain its independence. Indeed, hostile relations between El Zotz and its huge neighbour Tikal are evidenced by territorial divisions between the two polities and a hieroglyphic inscription describing El Zotz as being the target of an attack by Tikal. 

Nevertheless, El Zotz seems to have served as a forward bastion of powers aligned with Tikal’s enemy, the power center of Calakmul, and a royal court was relocated to El Zotz in the 6 th century AD during a time of weakness at Tikal. El Zotz has therefore proven to be “a font of information for archaeologists, helping them to piece together an understanding of the region’s changing political dynamics, and by extension, the Maya people”, writes USC.


Map of Lake Petén Itzá, showing the location of El Zotz to the north, next to the famous site of Tikal

Map of Lake Petén Itzá, showing the location of El Zotz to the north, next to the famous site of Tikal ( public domain )

Burial of a King

The latest discovery at El Zotz was made accidently when Guatemalan archaeologist Jose Luis Garrido was cleaning off a low platform and it gave way, revealing a small opening leading to an underground tunnel. The research team quickly excavated inside, leading to the discovery of a royal burial chamber.

Unfortunately, the tomb had been invaded by rats, which had consumed everything organic, including human remains. However, the researchers discovered four beautiful polychrome bowls, one of which bore the name of a king: Bakab K’inich, which translates to “the sun god who is first in the land.”

Four polychrome bowls were found inside the burial chamber, one bearing the name of a Maya king.

Four polychrome bowls were found inside the burial chamber, one bearing the name of a Maya king. Source: Screenshot, USC video .

Dramatic Discovery at El Diablo

It is not the first time a significant discovery has been made at El Zotz. In 2010, the same research team discovered a royal palace and tomb belonging to the city’s first ruler, who lived around 350 – 400 AD.  The intact tomb was found beneath the Temple of the Night Sun in a pyramid known as “El Diablo”. According to the National Geographic , some 1,600 years ago, “the Temple of the Night Sun was a blood-red beacon visible for miles and adorned with giant masks of the Maya sun god as a shark, blood drinker, and jaguar.”

The finding, which the National Geographic would later name as one of the “discoveries of the year”, brought international attention to El Zotz and ignited a race to complete excavations before looters descended on the site.

Ultimately, Garrison and his team found the remains of a 4 th century king named Chak, who was interred with the remains of six sacrificed children aged between 1 and 5 years old, along with bowls of human fingers, wood carvings, and bejewelled teeth.

“You never know what’s out there, and you never know what you’re going to find in any given year,” Garrison told USC. “That’s the mystery, and part of the appeal, of archaeology.”

Video showing Tom Garrison discovering a Maya royal burial during latest excavations at El Zotz:

Featured image: Garrison comes face to face with a mask inside one of the site’s pyramids. (USC Photo/Robert Perkins)

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